Johanna Mäkelä

University of Helsinki, Finland


 D.Soc.Sc. Johanna Mäkelä is the Professor of Food culture at the University of Helsinki. At the moment, she is the Dean of the Faculty of Educational Sciences. Her field of expertise lies in sociology and food and consumer studies with a focus on social and cultural aspects of eating. Mäkelä has been particularly interested in meal studies and styles and practices of eating. In her research she has used both quantitative and qualitative methods and data. Mäkelä has worked in research projects that explored e.g. future food consumption, responsibility of the food chain, consumers’ food classifications and practices in everyday life contexts, Nordic eating habits, and fat wars. Currently her research focuses on the purity of food and cooking during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown measures.


Has the meaning of a meal changed?

The presentation explores the meaning of meals. The starting point is that meals matter because in addition to offering substance, they are symbols, rituals, arenas for commensality, and markers of both similarities and differences. Firstly, the presentation focuses on the sociological and anthropological research on proper meals opening up the complexities and contexts of meal eating. Everyday patterns of meal eating are embedded in the cultural, social and economic contexts and conditions of societies. 

Secondly, the presentation deepens into the social aspect of meals. Commensality is usually viewed as enhancing interaction and cohesion between the people who share the meal, symbolizing a sense of belonging in the group, and signifying a respect for shared norms. Therefore, studies on meals show that for most people, the properness of a meal relates not only to what is on the plate, the material elements of the meal, but also to sharing the meal with other people. Eating together is a social glue. 

Finally, the presentation discusses the future of meals. Is the idea of meal eating under change? For some time, new commensal communities around cooking, sharing food and eating together have emerged. Typically, these new types of commensal circles extend the nuclear family and are often characterized by transience. Furthermore, the current pandemic is testing our ideas of eating together as new virtual commensality has emerged during 2020. While the category of a meal seems theoretically and empirically identifiable, the definitions of its content, location and company are under change.